I do everything I can for my kids — I try to make sure they have everything they need and I give them all the love in the world. I want to be their superhero! But unfortunately, we have had some big family changes, and I don’t want them to get hurt by it. It breaks my heart to see my child crying, but I can’t seem to cheer them up. What can I do? How can I keep my child from being upset?
In my many years of work in therapy with children and families, this seems to be one of the absolute hardest parts of being a parent: when your child is hurting and you can’t make the hurt go away. You want to protect them and make them happy, and it can be a powerless feeling when they aren’t. When they hurt, you hurt!
The bad news is that you can’t be the superhero that makes their (often BIG bad) feelings go away. The good news is that you don’t have to be the superhero that makes their bad feelings go away! Your children can feel any way that they do, and you don’t have to fix it. In fact, you shouldn’t! And this is really where your superhero powers lie…not as a feeling-eraser but as a feelings-feeler. Let me explain…
It is okay for both you and your children to have feelings, no matter what they are. When someone dies, it is appropriate for you both to be sad. When you move, your child should miss their friends and school. When another kid is mean, it is normal for your child to get mad. Feelings help us adjust to changes in life and identify when there is something we want to act on. For children, these feelings seem bigger and more mysterious, because children simply do not have as much practice at tolerating and listening to these feelings. And when kids feel confused or overwhelmed or scared, they sometimes act in distressing ways like throwing tantrums, aggression, sullenness, or regression.
That is where you come in – not to make the feelings go away, but to teach your kids that their feelings are okay and that there are healthy ways to express their feelings.
When your child is upset, you can be there with them, showing them that feelings are nothing to be scared of. You can give them empathy, which teaches them how to provide that for others. You can help them name their feelings, giving them the ability to communicate their experience. Once they are able to hear you, you can even help them figure out how their feelings made sense, so that they can use their feelings in the future to realize what they want, need, and care about.
Sometimes this is hard. Sometimes your own feelings seem big and mysterious. Sometimes you are not well enough to manage both their feelings and your own at the same time. Sometimes you, by virtue of not being a feelings-erasing-superhero, don’t know how to make sense of what you and your child are experiencing. At these times, it is okay to come to therapy and seek help to do this. In fact, that is a great way to show your child that support doesn’t end at the front door! Your child can see that there is help in the world when they need it and that is okay to ask for it.
So please, don’t try to make your child’s feelings go away. Instead, practice feeling feelings together! And never be afraid to ask for help. I’m here for you!
This post was written by Anna White, an experienced therapist for individuals, children, adolescents, and families at Emily Cook Therapy in Bethesda, MD.